I got Surface Detail from my brother for Christmas; that is, I bought it, and he gets less $$ than he was going to for his Christmas/birthday present (it’s a long story). I wrapped it up and wrote the nicest note from him to me and everything, which apparently was a bit weird, according to the rest of the family (he wasn’t there)….
Anyway, I was very excited to finally have it in my hands. A new Culture novel! The world should rejoice! And this is one of the biggest ones yet, I think, at 627 pages. I’m way too much of a fangirl to give this a particularly critical review, but…
I have a really bad memory but I think this is one of the bigger casts that Banks has followed in detail, which contributes to its size. There are certainly some privileged characters, but most of those introduced do get some detail and resolution. They’re a good mix, too; mostly pan-human, but a few not, and to my utter delight a seriously warped AI whose avatar goes by name of Demeisen and whose attitude towards war, while reprehensible, was one of such unfeigned delight that I couldn’t help but adore him. In a reproving manner of course. I think the AIs, and the ships they’re encased in, are by and large my favourite part of any Culture novel. Not that Banks appears to feel any restrictions with his human characters, but with the AIs there are really no limits to the craziness he can put out there, and does. I think my other favourite character is the one who, if any deserve the name, is the main protagonist: Lededje Y’breq. She dies in the first chapter. Then, of course, she comes back.
Dying is, in fact, the focus of this entire book. I think someone who later becomes a main character is dead or dying in each of the first four chapters, and it kinda keeps happening. That’s because Banks decided to address one of the oldest issues in this book: whether there is a heaven or a hell. And the answer is, definitively, Yes There Is: because we made them. As virtual environments. Now the question becomes, should there be hells (heavens seem to be fine)? When it’s people just like us making them and deciding you go there? … which, in a place like the galaxy Banks gives us, naturally leads to war. That’s right people, war is hell and hell means war. Or something.
It is, of course, an awesome book. The scale is enormous; there have been a few Culture novels mostly restricted to one planet, but this is not one of them – it zooms all over the galaxy, faster than the speed of light. The plot, as mentioned, follows several different people or groups, some of whom end up tangling together and some of whom stay separate; the plot has an appropriate number of twists and surprises that I really didn’t see coming, such that I stayed utterly glued to the page the whole way through. And the language – well, it’s just swoon-worthy in parts. The speech from that dreadful avatar about why it likes war? Majestic. The descriptions of places? Concise yet evocative; I almost couldn’t read the descriptions of Hell.
Read it! You know you want to!